Russia issued two warnings to the U.S. military this week that it plans to join forces with the Syrian government and attack an area where American troops are stationed. U.S. officials responded by saying American troops will defend themselves.
The Russians have accused the United States of sheltering terrorists by protecting the area around At Tanf, a key strategic location for American forces and allied members of the anti-Islamic State coalition.
On Saturday, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed to have captured a group of militants who said they had a training camp near the American military base in At Tanf.
“There is no terrorist camp within the At Tanf de-confliction zone, which runs in a 55k diameter around the Coalition’s At Tanf Garrison,” a spokesman for the U.S. coalition replied.
The Syrian military claims it fought alongside Iranian troops against militants near At Tanf last weekend in an effort to thwart attacks launched from the region against the much-contested city of Palmyra. Officials from the U.S. coalition disputed these claims.
According to CNN, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford are aware of both Russia’s warning and intelligence on troop movements in the region.
The officials said that no current indications of Russian ground forces massing near the U.S. military base existed, but Russian airstrikes or missiles launched from warships in the Mediterranean could threaten the area. The Kremlin says it has ten warships and two submarines positioned off the coast of Syria.
“We have absolutely advised them to stay out of At Tanf. We are postured to respond,” said one U.S. official.
“The United States does not seek to fight the government of Syria or any groups that may be providing it support. However, if attacked, the United States will not hesitate to use necessary and proportionate force to defend US, coalition or partner forces,” said another.
Much attention is currently focused on the Syrian military’s pending assault against Idlib province, which will include Russian air support. Russian warplanes have already begun preparing the battlefield with intense airstrikes against rebel positions in Idlib despite warnings from the United States, United Nations, and Turkey about the danger of a humanitarian catastrophe.
At Tanf is far to the southeast of Idlib and would not be directly involved in a battle there, but there are concerns Russia might take advantage of the Idlib distraction to move against other targets in Syria.
In the absolute worst-case scenario where the U.S. coalition intervenes against Syrian and Russian forces which massacre civilians or deploy chemical weapons in Idlib, At Tanf would certainly represent an important strategic element in a wider conflict.